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The gamification of sports broadcasts or how I learned to stop worrying and love gambling

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We’re getting more of an idea of what our gambling-integrated sports broadcasts will look like. I’m not too worried about it.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Monday night, the Baltimore Ravens took a 3-point lead over the Cleveland Browns on a field goal with just seconds to play - ostensibly sealing the win. But on one final play from scrimmage, the Browns tried to stay alive through a series of laterals, and as the Benny Hill music played, they were eventually tackled in the end zone for a safety and a 5-point loss.

It was a meaningless play for the result of the game, but extremely meaningful for those of us who had wagered on either side of the line, which was Ravens +3.

Most every major news outlets framed their coverage not around the result of the game, but around this historic “bad beat,” including: CBS, NBC, USA Today, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, SBNation and on and on. And it’s not like this was some rare instance of sports reporting with a gambling angle. ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt does a regular segment on bad beats. It doesn’t get much more mainstream than that.

I bring this up because when I wrote about the coming integration of Bally’s sports betting into Cardinals broadcasts this season, the overwhelming response seemed to be hand-wringing and consternation. Here comes this new phenomena, the blending of gambling and sports media, which will necessarily ruin the broadcast experience.

I’m not ready to accept those assumptions.

It was way back in 2013 that MLB first became an investor in DraftKings. By 2015, most professional sports leagues and ESPN had deals with DK or rival Fanduel. Since the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018, those partnerships have only grown to include gambling operators of all stripes.

This is all to say that the integration of sports and gambling is not some new phenomena that is coming with this Sinclair/Bally’s partnership. This is a shift in sports media that has been underway for nearly a decade. You’ve been watching segments on broadcasts sponsored by or highlighting daily fantasy games, if-not more traditional sports betting, for years now.

That doesn’t mean you like those segments, and many fans worry about an increase in that type of content. “I just want to watch the games,” is the complaint I often hear. And I get that.

But at the same time, I can’t help but think I heard the same arguments in the early 2000s when fantasy sports content started to make its way into broadcasts. The increased focus on individual player stats, often on a ticker below the main broadcast window, was a bane of the All That Matters is Wins and Losses crowd.

But fantasy players - and I’ve been one since the pen & paper days of the 1990s - are among the biggest fans of the game. Digging into individual player performances is just another way to watch and appreciate the game. That’s not a controversial statement now, but it really was just 20 years ago. It’s almost hard to remember watching baseball without the constant flow of stats on a ticker, which itself was an outgrowth of the boom in fantasy sports. I rarely hear people complain about that now.

I expect the integration of betting in broadcasts to be similar.

Like fantasy players, betters are among the most savvy sports fans. Any meaningful conversation about betting is really a conversation about the game. Consider an Adam Wainwright strikeout prop. If you were to discuss taking that bet, you’re really talking about how many batters he typically strikes out, what kind of lineups he might do better or worse against, and so on. You’re not discussing gambling. You’re talking about baseball.

Is that a departure from a laser focus on the game on the field? Maybe. But come on, you can rarely watch a Cardinals game now without a half-inning spent talking to some organizer of a charity golf tournament. ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball is an interview show where a ballgame happens to be unfolding in the background.

So no, I don’t think the integration of gambling will necessarily detract from watching baseball. But a lot of it will come down to implementation. And beyond the discussion of betting during games, the bigger concern might be the “gamification” promised by Sinclair execs.

Sinclair is promising Bally-branded stand-alone apps for watching Cardinals games sometime in 2021. These apps will give you the opportunity to watch the games without a cable or streaming subscription, but they will also include integrated betting as you watch.

NBC Sports Washington has offered Predict the Game alternate broadcasts for the NBA Wizards as well as preseason Football Team games. So it’s likely the Bally app would look something like this:

You may think that looks like fun or you may think that looks like a dystopian hellscape. Here’s my prediction: We will all complain and make jokes about it when it launches. In 2-3 years, we won’t even notice. Isn’t that what happened with all the tickers and score widgets that crept into broadcasts 20 years ago? Let’s be honest, most of us are looking at our phone for 40% of the game anyway.

Of course, this is still just speculation about how this will look - but I think it’s pretty informed speculation.

I expect there will be a traditional broadcast and a broadcast with integrated betting. There almost has to be - at least until your television is a touch-screen. If you watch the games via a cable subscription - and with all the streaming providers dropping RSNs, that’s your only choice - my guess is the broadcast will look largely the same, with maybe just the addition of Fredbird’s Guaranteed 5% Play of the Week.

If you don’t want to shell out for a cable subscription and instead want to watch via the Bally app, you’re almost certainly going to be looking at some “gamification” while you watch.

Maybe that will be a deal-breaker for some folks, and since they are also unwilling to pay for a cable subscription, they’ll divorce themselves from baseball entirely and go off to write the Great American Novel.

For other folks, gambling is an immoral act - and there are many who have seen their families devastated by gambling addiction. That’s a more complicated issue, and I certainly understand any individual who has reservations on those grounds. On a macro level, when it comes to legal vice and sports broadcasts: It’s complicated. Ballplayers no longer appear in ads for cigarettes, but any sports broadcast is at least 20% beer commercial.

For the majority of us, who will not quit baseball cold turkey, I expect we will grumble at first, get used to it, and soon forget we ever knew anything different.